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Sleeping problems

Sleep is not a luxury, but an essential part of everyone’s life, yet one in three adults will have had some sort of problem with their sleep patterns within the past 12 months. Difficulty in sleeping or ‘insomnia’ is repeated inability in getting to or staying asleep, which leads to some form of disruption in performance or wellbeing during the daytime. If it occurs regularly or over a long period of time, it's called ‘chronic insomnia’.

For most people sleep difficulties are fairly short-lived, but for as many as one in ten it becomes a chronic problem which significantly affects their life. There are many different patterns of insomnia. For example, one in three people with insomnia have no problem getting off to sleep but then wake in the early hours and cannot get back to sleep.

Stress is a common trigger for sleeping difficulties. Some people are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to show a more extreme response to stress, such as people who are depressed, chronically ill or struggling with other difficult issues such as relationship problems. Changes, no matter how small, in routine or lifestyle can affect your sleep patterns.

These changes may include: moving away from home and getting used to a new environment, preparing for a presentation or interview, exam stress, and disputes with fellow students or tutors. Other common causes include physical illness that causes pain, environmental noise, depression, shift work, caffeine or alcohol consumption, and medication side-effects.

Sometimes, trying to manage sleep problems can make matters worse - we can tend to worry excessively about the effect that inadequate sleep will have on us, and so strive excessively hard to get to sleep, take daytime naps or sleep in late which can disrupt the natural rhythm. Turning to alcohol, substances or medication in the belief that this will help may also affect us, as most just induce unnatural patterns of sleep. A vicious circle of poor sleep and stress is quickly set up and can persist after the initial trigger has passed.

Insomnia contributes to excessive daytime tiredness, clumsiness, recurrent infections (inadequate sleep has been show to suppress the immune system), poor concentration, irritability, erratic mood swings, work and relationship problems and a general inability to cope.

Age affects the amount of sleep that is needed for good health. Some people thrive on a little sleep however the recommended amount of sleep is eight hours.

Making the choice to improve sleep means taking positive steps towards improving your health and wellbeing. This may include recognising and addressing any underlying causes of your sleep difficulties and attempting to restore a normal sleep pattern through changes in behaviour and lifestyle.

It is beneficial to try to follow a set routine: going to sleep and getting up at the same time, avoiding daytime naps, making sure your bed is comfortable and your bedroom is a calm, quiet and soothing environment, and avoiding working or watching TV in your bedroom. Taking sufficient exercise, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can assist with a more balanced sleep pattern.

Finding the causes for lack of sleep is difficult but many insomniacs have benefited from using a Sleep Diary to assist them with their sleep monitoring. This helps record things that happen during the day that may be a factor in their sleeping difficulties.

Techniques such as relaxation, yoga and meditation can help prepare your body and mind for sleep. Pre recorded tracks such as relaxation and meditation can help in relaxing you. Having a warm milky drink before bed, and herbal drinks such as valerian and chamomile, can also help.

There are many herbal sleeping aids available from pharmacists and health food stores although some sleeping tablets may be prescribed by your GP for short-term use only, when the cause of your sleep difficulties has been identified as bereavement or jet lag, for example.

For persistent insomnia and in addition to reviewing lifestyle patterns, counselling may assist in addressing any underlying issues that may be causing you stress or anxiety.

The Mental Health Foundation offers a number of excellent podcasts available to download, listen on their website or iTunes. Their Sleep podcast is intended to be listened to in bed. It can help you relax and get ready to go to sleep. They also have a Quick fix relaxation and exercise podcast with a number of short breathing techniques which can help relax and reduce stress before you go to bed.

NHS Choices provide information surrounding symptoms, causes and what to do.

Insomniacs is an excellent resource providing a wealth of information about insomnia including lifestyle, environment, sleep patterns and obtaining professional help.

Mind are a mental health charity and this webpage offers comprehensive sleep advice.

The Sleep Council provide a leaflet giving useful information regarding assessing your sleepiness, your bed and developing strategies

Self Help Guides produced by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust offer a wide range of information covering a range of wellbeing issues including insomnia.

Medical Advisory Service provides helpful and practical information to help you overcome your sleeping problem and how to seek appropriate advice and help.